March 23, 2006

March 23, 2006 | Commentary on Political Thought

Curing the Conservative Crack-Up

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…." That Dickensian description of Europe during the French Revolution holds true for American conservatives today.

In the modern American edition, though, the two cities of our tale are not Paris and London. They're "Washington, D.C." and "everywhere else."

Beyond the Washington beltway, these are the best of times for conservatives. The vast majority of Americans embrace traditional social values and basic conservative policy principles such as limited government, rule of law and open markets. Spurred by prudent tax cuts, the economic expansion continues apace, with millions of new jobs created yearly, unemployment near record lows and inflation firmly in check. The best of times, indeed.

Yet conservatives who dare look at what's happening in Washington can hardly be blamed for thinking it is the worst of times.

It's paradoxical. Self-described conservatives have run the federal government -- both executive and legislative branches -- for half a decade. Yes, they've accomplished much good. But they've also dropped the ball, time after time.

Federal spending has exploded -- up by nearly half since 2001. The "conservative" Congress presided over a 40 percent increase in federal spending on local schools ("No Child Left Behind") and enacted the most expensive new entitlement in 40 years (the Medicare drug program). From homeland security to farms to roads, there isn't a problem this "conservative" Congress hasn't tried to paper over with money. Lots of it. With pork on top.

It's a huge problem. As government spends more and more, it insinuates itself more broadly and more deeply into our everyday lives. Yet people can build and maintain a healthy society only when they are free to create their own destiny -- to strive, to make and overcome mistakes, and to achieve success in their own way.

Once upon a time, conservative politicians remembered this. They rode the principles of limited government into office. But after holding the reins of power for a while, too many seem prone to switch horses and climb upon the Big Government mounts native to Washington.

Congressional leaders need to get back in the right saddle, so they can get government back on track.

The conservative majority that elected them can help by following the policy debates closely and making sure their nominally conservative representatives "walk the walk."

Here are six simple questions our politicians -- and the people who elect them -- should raise when considering any proposed government action:

1. Is it the government's business? Federal power should be brought to bear only on those things that cannot be handled more efficiently by a state, a community or an individual.

2. Does it promote self-reliance? Too many government programs punish individual initiative. Some even create a permanent underclass of dependents.

3. Is it responsible? Too many policymakers treat the federal treasury as a bottomless well of cash. It isn't. Washington's unfunded promises must be paid eventually. Where will the money come from?

4. Does it make America more prosperous? Politicians brag about "bringing home the bacon." But all the pork projects and open-ended entitlements actually sap America's prosperity.

5. Does it make us safer? Congress requires nearly 40 percent of federal anti-terrorism spending be divided equally among the states. Is the terrorist threat really as great in Montana as in California or New York? Government's first order of business is to protect the homeland, not "spread the pork."

6. Does it unify us? Our country grows stronger through addition and multiplication, not subtraction and division. Government policies should encourage patriotism, American values and a common language to foster a unified national identity.

Government is only as good as the people it represents, and that is actually to our advantage. The great "American Experiment" is the most successful in history. A handful of immigrants, bunched along the Atlantic coast when they won their freedom, set out to conquer a continent. Within a century they had.

If We the People start insisting our lawmakers answer the six questions above, we can keep their feet walking on the right path -- the one blazed by the Founders and those who came after them.

Like everything in life, these benchmarks are interdependent. Sure, politicians must compromise sometimes. But they're paid to make difficult decisions, not to cave on the principles they articulate on the campaign trail.

With the involvement of a concerned citizenry, those they elected should be able to hold fast to the conservative principles and policies that expand freedom, opportunity and prosperity for all. That will produce a future that is, simply, "the best of times."

Edwin Feulner is president of The Heritage Foundation (, a Washington-based public policy research institute and co-author of the new book Getting America Right.

About the Author

Edwin J. Feulner, Ph.D. Founder, Chairman of the Asian Studies Center, and Chung Ju-yung Fellow
Founder's Office

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